The delta variant hasn’t made a dent in U.S. travel demand, airlines say

Jul 23, 2021

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The delta variant hasn’t been a problem for Delta Air Lines. Nor any other U.S. carrier. At least, not yet.

Travel demand in the U.S. has not been blunted by the rapidly spreading delta variant, the major U.S. airlines have all said, with current travel numbers and future bookings continuing to trend upward.

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The resilience in travel demand comes despite a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths in the U.S. in recent weeks, although confirmed case levels are still well below the highs of this winter. The variant makes up 83% of current U.S. cases, the CDC said.

The delta variant has been observed to be about 50%-60% more contagious than the alpha variant that drove the pandemic this winter, which was, in turn, 50% more contagious than the original strain.

However, all of the vaccines approved in the U.S. appear to be effective at protecting against the delta variant, preventing serious illness, hospitalization, and death, although there are some indications that they may be less effective at preventing breakthrough infections. Still, more than 97% of people hospitalized with COVID-19 last week were unvaccinated, CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said, and 99.5% of COVID deaths in the U.S. were among unvaccinated people, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said.

The evident efficacy of the vaccines has meant that U.S. travelers are largely remaining confident, airline CEOs said this week.

“We haven’t seen any impact at all on bookings, which continue to get stronger week after week,” United CEO Scott Kirby said during the company’s second-quarter earnings call this week. “We think the most likely outcome is that the continued recovery in demand continues unabated.”

At United’s competitors, leadership generally agreed.

“Demand for our product remains strong and we’re very encouraged by the trends we’re seeing in the revenue environment,” American Airlines president Robert Isom said on a conference call Thursday. “The recovery is happening.”

Delta CEO Ed Bastian expressed similar sentiments last week.

“We know our customers are largely vaccinated,” Bastian said. “Our people are largely vaccinated.”

More: 6 things we learned about Delta this week during its earnings call

“The vaccines work and they’re giving people the ability to get back to their lives,” he added. “So no, we’re not anticipating any changes at this time.”

“We’re looking at the customer sentiment, but we’re also certainly looking at current bookings, as well as forward bookings,” Southwest chief operating officer Mike Van de Ven said in response to a question from TPG. “We are just not seeing at this point any issue or any impact from the Delta variant.”

While this is certainly good news for airlines and the broader travel industry, which has been among those hit hardest during the pandemic, it raises an obvious question: why are people not avoiding travel, which is largely perceived as a high-risk activity, despite the rise of the variant, even among vaccinated people?

According to Dr. Anthony Santella, professor of health administration and policy at the University of New Haven, a large part of it comes down to messaging.

“Part of it is messaging from the federal government,” he said. “People hear that and they’re like, well, the ‘experts’ are telling us that if we’re vaccinated, we don’t need to abide by these by these measures anymore. And the unvaccinated or partially vaccinated person sees that as kind of their escape.”

Dr. Santella noted that while the vaccines are largely effective, they’re not a “magic shield,” and believes that some pandemic mitigation measures may come back into place this fall.

“If I, as a fully vaccinated person was going to travel, I would continue to follow the kind of public health mitigation strategies, including wearing a mask when indoors,” he said. “Unless I’m eating, I’m wearing a mask.”

More: Business travel is surging back sooner than expected, but there’s still some bad news for airlines

A self-proclaimed “huge traveler” — Dr. Santella said he’s visited between 25 and 30 countries and has filled passports before — he noted that he made the personal decision to avoid traveling during the pandemic.

Still, according to all the data, other travelers are ready to get back into the world, variant or not.

On Sunday, 2,227,704 people traveled by air in the U.S., 81% of the number that traveled on the same day in 2019. It was the first time that more than 2.2 million travelers took to the skies since March 2020.

Featured photo by Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images

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